An amulet is an object that is either worn (usually as jewelry), carried (perhaps as a weapon), or placed somewhere that has a ritual significance (such as a specific place within a home, or near a crop field), in the belief that it has magico-religious powers. Examples of such powers would include: the ability to protect against a specific type of danger, the ability to cure disease, or the ability to give preternatural strength to the wearer. (Repeat after me: apotropaeic, able to protect against or cure ailments and injuries and counter demonic influences responsible for them.) Dr. Campbell Bonner, whose extensive collection of amulets from Syria and Egypt (as well as those purchased from dealers in Greece and England) now resides in the University of Michigan's Taubman Medical Library, gives the following definition for the term: “any object which by its contact or close proximity to the person who owns it, or to any possession of his, exerts power for his good, either by keeping evil from him and his property or by endowing his with positive advantages.” This means that while the word ‘amulet’ may bear a connotation of the medieval and arcane, leading one to think of a highly-developed occult system such as Hermeticism, its denotation is something far more simple: good-luck token.
Despite the fact that ‘amulet’ is such a general term, it is possible for it to be used incorrectly. The most common erroneous usage of the term is as a synonym for either ‘charm’ or ‘talisman’. These terms are not interchangeable. ‘Charm’ is actually a subset of ‘amulet’, specifically, amulets that have had magical formulae recited over them; talismans are only intended to perform one specific task, possibly for a limited time, whereas the amulet is supposed to exercise its protective powers on behalf of the individual or thing continually. Talismans are less frequently meant for protection, and more often supposed to help the wearer gain or achieve something, such as love, honor, wealth, power, or victory in combat or competition.
Whether or not you believe in magic / magick / whatever term you like to use to indicate the existence of forces operating in our universe that seem to defy the rules that define it, it is likely that you have at least one object, probably several, that functions as an amulet of some kind. The human tendency to ascribe protective powers to objects found in some way significant may seem a disgustingly superstitious one, but it is near-universal, very much alive today, spanning all sorts of cultural divides, and for that reason alone should not be considered trivial.
So Many Different Kinds of Amulet, So Little Time
Amulets started out in prehistory as found objects that seemed to be of special quality. Examples included animal parts, such as a tooth, an ear, a tail, or a foot, taken from a particular animal thought to have has certain desirable traits associated with the purpose of the amulets. They could also be plants, herbs, or a mixture of herbs in a bag, tied or otherwise secured in place on a specific body part. Amulets could also come from the mineral world, as a stone of particular shape or quality. Meteoric bits which are often magnetic, stones with natural holes in them, geodes, and crystals were all viewed as especially powerful.
While humans have never stopped using found objects as amulets, we eventually moved on to manufacture new kinds. With the advent of written language, powerful words and symbols drawn, incised, or otherwise formed in clay, stone, metal, paper, parchment, wood, wax, or cloth, and often encased in metal, leather, or cloth became very popular. A semi-precious stone, such as carnelian or agate, engraved with mythical scenes, prayers, charms, names of deities, or carved into a particular shape, has always been a good choice. When strung on a cord, such a gem could be worn around one's neck or upper arm; alternately, once metallurgy developed, it could be set in a ring, bracelet, or pendant. Of course the metal itself could also serve as an amulet, especially if it was inscribed with magical information.
Amulets have always been considered to be the most effective after having been officially consecrated in some way, often in rituals that involved burning incense, pouring libations, or sometimes animal sacrifice. Then the amulet or talisman can be worn or carried on a person, hung or placed in a house or other building, put into a boxes or buried in the earth, or in some way fastened to an animal, for whatever reason.
Amulets of the Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt, and the Roman Empire
The ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, and Arabs all placed great importance in amulets. Favorites of the Babylonians and Syrians were cylindrical seals imbedded with precious stones. The text-based amulet, which was used in Egypt for a period of about 200 years starting during its twenty-first dynasty, went on to become (is?) incredibly common in the Near East. Such an amulet was a long thin papyrus roll on which a spell was written. It was placed in either a leather or a wood container and worn around the neck, especially by children, to protect them from any and all misfortunes. The text of these amulets always had the name of the deity or deities who were supposed to protect the child, mentioned the child and also the parents by name, and usually stated in considerable detail what dangers the amulet was meant to cover.
I’m not sure why it is that it so few of the people I know seem to be aware of Judaism’s mystical roots. Given tribal intermingling through war and trade, it should not be surprising that a little bit of cultural anthropology shows Sumerian , Egyptian, and Babylonian influences on the Hebrews and their worldview. The Torah is actually a strong source of magical lore.
Examples of Hebrew Amulets
(while reading this section, keep in mind what I just said about the popularity of text-based amulets in the ancient cultures of the Near East)
- mezuzah: A tubular case of wood, glass, or metal three to four inches in length, containing a parchment on which are inscribed twenty-two lines of Hebrew (passages from the book of Deuteronomy which form part of the Shema). There is also an opening near the top which reveals on the reverse side of the parchment the word Shaddai, one of the mystical names of YHWH*. Upon entering or leaving the house, the pious Jew touches the exposed word Shaddai with the tips of his fingers, which he then presses reverently to his lips, reciting, "May God keep watch over my going out and my coming in from now and evermore."
- phylactery (or tefilim): Two black leather boxes, one worn on the left arm and the other on the forehead, containing scriptural passages. The name for this symbol of orthodox Judaism is derived from a Greek word that actually means "guard, amulet"; while there is no indication that phylacteries were ever considered to be amulets by the rabbis, it is possible that the masses viewed them as such; in fact it seems likely that they originated due to popular superstition and were later given more 'legitimate' religious significance by the Pharisees. The same is likely to be true of the mezuzah.
- saharon: Shaped like a crescent moon, this amulet was worn by women and kings, and also tied around the necks of camels (if we can believe the references made to it in the Biblical books Isaiah and Judges), as protection from the evil eye.
- teraphim: Idols or household gods; referenced in the book of Genesis (Chapter 31), in the story of Rachel. This term, Chaldean in origin, later was corrupted into 'seraphim' and took on an entirely new meaning.
- tzitzit: Ritual fringes that must be attached to all four-cornered garments worn by Jewish males. Like the tefilim, most likely originated as charms to protect the body from evil spirits, and were later assigned religious experience.
N.B.-- The most powerful amulets of the Hebrews were (are) the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter was (is) believed to have cosmic energies.
A few paragraphs ago, I referred to the amulets of the ancient Egyptians. Over the course of millennia, the Egyptians developed an elaborate cosmological system of myth and magic that is as awe-inspiring as it is ponderous. Naturally, the concept of the amulet (in Egyptian, mk-t, “protection”) played a large part in their drama of life in death; their oldest ones date back to the Neolithic period. Numerous small amulets were wrapped with mummies to protect them on their journey through the Duat. Others were massive, such as the stone beetle mounted on a pedestal at Karnak, which measures five feet long by three feet wide and weighs more than two tons.
The Egyptians believed that the material an amulet was made of was crucial for the magic to work. Many were of the aforementioned semi-precious stones, the most common being carnelian, green feldspar, lapis lazuli, serpentine, steatite, and turquoise. Some were metal, such as gold, silver, tin, lead, copper, bronze, or, rarely, iron. Some were of wood or bone. But by far the most commonly used material was faience, a paste made of clay and high-quartz sand. Faience amulets were mass- produced by the thousands, by pressing the paste into molds (to prepare a mold, a master amulet was made of a durable material such as stone, then pressed into a lump of soft clay. When baked, the clay became hard, and this was the mold used to produce the amulets. Any number of molds could be made from the master amulet and any number of amulets could be made from each mold.) and then firing them in kilns. When fired, the glaze migrated to the surface, making it smooth and glassy.
Examples of Egyptian Amulets
- ab: This amulet was used to replace a mummy's heart (extremely important, as the ancient Egyptians believed the heart to be by far the most important of the organs); its presence proved that the deceased was a "Truth Speaker" and therefore should be allowed passage into the netherworld. The term ab is also used in religious documents to mean 'heart' in a variety of contexts, such as we would use it to make words such as "good-hearted", "hearty", or "heartfelt".
- ba: Wrought from gold in the form of a man-headed hawk, it was placed on the mummy's breast and represented the soul/spirit/alter ego/what-have-you that separated from the body at death and was able to come and go from the tomb at will.
- djed: A representation of the vertebrae of the god Osiris, usually placed on a mummy's lower torso. Its hieroglyphic meaning was "enduring" or "stable".
- menat (also rendered as 'menet', 'menit'): A wide, beaded collar, extraordinarily heavy; a counterweight was attached to it in back to keep it in place. May have been used as a percussion instrument during ceremonies (!). Was a conduit for the power of the goddess Hathor and her son, Ihy.
- nefer: A very simple charm meant to ensure happiness and good fortune. It was made of gold, red stone, or porcelain, and was worn on a necklace or string of beads. As a hieroglyph it meant "joy" and was incorporated into many feminine names (Nefertiti, Neferteri).
- ren: Translates to "name"; a person's name was inscribed on an amulet, and the shen (see below) drawn around it, in order to protect that person's spirit. Essentially, a cartouche.
- scarab: The shape of this amulet was based on that of the dung beetle (scarabeaus sacer), which had a symbolic association with the solar cycle in the ancient Egyptian worldview. It was used to ensure a safe and orderly transition from the realm of the living to the land of the dead.
- shen: The hieroglyph for "eternity" was carved into or formed out of any number of objects and materials in order to invoke the concept of permanence.
- sma: Fashioned in the shape of a pair of lungs; was meant to give the mummy the ability to breathe after resurrection.
- tjet (also rendered as tyet, tet, or even tit): "the Blood of Isis" Somewhat similar to an ankh in terms of shape, the tjet is actually a representation of Isis' menstrual pad that was usually placed on the mummy's neck and was meant to invoke the goddess' protective powers. Tjets have been found buried with nearly all of Egypt's rulers and their spouses.
- uadj: A papyrus scepter that symbolized expansion and growth, meant to give its bearer life energy.
- udjat (also rendered as 'utchat', 'wadjet' or 'wedjat'): A sacred eye symbol. Second only to the ankh in popularity (and all too often mis-use) by modern-day Goths, the udjat is made by outlining an eye,
lengthening the outer corner, and then drawing two lines down onto the upper cheek-- one straight down, and one curling outward. The right eye is the Eye of Ra (solar), the left eye is the Eye of Thoth (lunar), together they are the two Eyes of Horus the Elder. These were general protective symbols, used to repel evil, destruction, and disorder. An amulet made from lapis lazuli in the shape of at least one of the Eyes of Horus assured the bearer victory over enemies encountered in the next life.
- uraeus: Based on a rearing cobra in the same way that the scarab was based on a beetle. Sometimes depicted as winged. This was a symbol of royalty, usually worn on the brow; the cobra spat fire to protect the pharoah.
- urs: A mummy's pillow/headrest, usually made out of either wood or ivory.
- usekh: These ubiquitous wide, beaded collars, made from gold and sometimes lapis lazuli were originally supposed to help the person mummified to break free from bandages during the resurrection process, but eventually became popular among the living to guard against chest and throat infections.
The Romans, industrious culture-stealers that they were, could hardly be content to let the other peoples of the Mediterranean have all the amulet-fun. Enough of this talk of obscure deities and complicated theories of the soul—let’s hear about the Roman penis amulet! Amulets and bas reliefs shaped like penises were fairly common in the late Roman era, especially in the outlying regions of the Empire. I think it makes perfect sense, given the fact that the Romans seemed to be so concerned with proving that they had bigger cocks than any of their neighbors (“C’mon, Octavian, enough’s enough, let’s put the ruler away…”). They were often used as votive offerings, tossed into holy wells or springs in the same way we might toss a penny into a wishing well. While there is nothing cryptic about their meaning, Roman penis amulets are frequently quite fanciful in appearance; for example, an agrarian fertility charm meant as an offering to Bacchus might have a glans comprised of a grape leaf, the testicles made up of pomegranates, and bunches of grapes simulating lush pubic hair, giving this amulet the distinct look of an agrarian fertility charm. Other examples of this phenomenon include depictions of the penis with lion haunches, sometimes wearing a bell around its neck like a pet, or perhaps winged like a bird. Many of these lion-haunched penis-animals have diminutive penises of their own! These bear an uncanny resemblance to the lion-haunched bronze, brass, pewter, and silver penis amulets of Thailand, manufactured from the 8th century to the present day.
Interesting (and Not-So-Interesting) Amulets of Modern Man
Yes, that’s right, I said “to the present day”. The Thai name for a penis amulet is palad khik, which means "honorable surrogate penis". Less than 2’ in length, they are meant to be worn by males on a waist-string under the clothes (off-center from the real penis), in the hope that they will attract and absorb any magical injury directed toward the generative organs. It is not uncommon for a man to wear several palad khiks at one time. For instance, one might be meant to increase his luck in gambling, another to attract women, and a third to give him protection from bullets and knives. The palad khik is said to have originated in India and to have been imported to Thailand by Cambodian monks in the 8th century AD. Early styles of palad khik bear inscribed invocations, entreaties, and praises to Siva; later ones combine these with interlineated invocations and praises to Buddha; modern ones bear Buddhist inscriptions (invariably written in a form of script that is dead to contemporary Thais). Palad khik amulets carved from wood, bone, or horn are made by monks who specialize in their manufacture, and the efficacy of a given amulet is dependant on the charisma and reputation of its creator. The lettering of the inscriptions is a matter of serious ritual and can take several days to complete. Cast metal palad khiks do not always bear inscriptions, but they may carry the additional symbolism embodied in an animal holding the penis.
Women in Thailand do not generally wear palad khiks, nor is there an equivalent Thai vulvar amulet -- although a circular disk called a chaping is worn by young girls to protect their genitals from evil forces. Note that charms or amulets that depict the anatomically-correct vulva were relatively uncommon until quite recently. For thousands of years, the entire female body (or at very least the torso) was used as a votary figure, with no one body part singled out, and if any part was going to be fetishized in this manner it would be unlikely to be the vulva, as the subtle folds of the female genitals are more difficult to render than are the bold cone-cylinder-and-spheres of the penis and testicles. This is not to say that representations were nonexistent-- far from it! As late as the middle ages, carvings of the sheela-na-gig -- a thin, impishly smiling woman holding open her enormous vulva with both hands -- were placed at the doorways to Irish Catholic churches, so that all who entered might touch the sacred vulva and be blessed. However, on the whole, representations of the vaginal cavity via amulet have been more metaphorical. Remember the crescent shape of the saharon, and the Egyptian tjet; there is a modern-day British superstition that old shoes are lucky, and used horseshoes or horseshoe wall plaques can also be seen as stand-ins for the vulva, especially when they are displayed pointing downward. Such metaphors are becoming more rare, as the resurgence of goddess worship since the 1960s has led to direct representation of the vulva becoming more popular.
Have you had enough of this talk of genitalia? Let’s take a brief look at some of the other amulets you are likely to encounter in our scientific Western culture circa 2002. They are only likely to be referred to as such by those who participate in the subculture known as New Age (indeed, many serious Neopagans will shy away from this term, just as they shy away from the word “spell”, perceiving it to be hokey and co-opted by fans of Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I LOVE gaming!)), but that does not mean that amulets cannot be found elsewhere. In fact, they’re everywhere. The mezuzah, tefilim, and tzitzit remain hallmarks of orthodox Judaism, and these are certainly not the only amulets that have their origins in magical superstitions but are now accepted religious symbols. Even if you’re a staunch atheist who believes that all religions are magical and foolish, as I said near the top of this writeup, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve got an amulet or two of your own. That lucky shirt. Maybe you bought a few of those wish bracelets that were popular a few years back, not really believing that they did much good or the color of the beads made a difference, but hey, they looked all right and they couldn’t hurt, right? Almost all of us have something, some little trinket that, on some level, we hope will help to keep the darkness at bay. But as a great theorist once said, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
* = The tetragrammaton, translated as YHWH and pronounced YAHWEH. The closest we get to the personal name of the chief deity of the ancient Hebrews. I say “chief” because at the time, the religion was henotheistic, not monotheistic. The Hebrews definitely believed that other gods existed—and that it was their job to make war on them. The tetragrammaton appears on many amulets, was used to help magicians conjure spirits (!) and also to protect from various kinds of attack.
Sources referenced in the creation of this writeup:
- carlos.emory.edu/ODYSSEY/EGYPT/amuletA.html, amuletC.html
- www.geocities.com/SoHo/Lofts/2938/magic7amulets.html --
This is a surprisingly good source, one of my chief ones.
- www.heraldmag.org/olb/dictionaries/ two%20babylons%20dictionary.htm
- www.luckymojo.com/penisamulets.html, penisroman.html, vulvaamulet.html, willss29buckleisis.html --
These are great sites. The sections of my writeup that deal with penis/vulvar amulets are, to an uncomfortably great extent, plagiarized from here, and I'm sorry for that, but I just couldn't top their material.
- www.paralumun.com/amulet.htm, amuletsegyp.htm, amuletheb.htm --
This was my starting point (extremely high on the Google list for "amulet history"). As I started to look up the individual amulets referred to in amuletsegyp.htm, I was APPALLED at how shoddy this person's scholarship had been. When doing web research, ALWAYS corroborate what you're reading, folks.
- www.touregypt.net/amulet.htm, magazine/mag07012001/magf2.htm
If you prefer to do your research through print resources as opposed to web resources (what are you doing using E2???) Body Guards: Protective Amulets and Charms by Desmond Morris might be worth your time. It might also be too pseudoscientific for your tastes. Sort of depends on how much of a New Ager you are. YMMV.
E2 user chancel has done work at U of Michigan's Taubman Medical Library, and notes that while they have all kinds of stuff hanging around in the Rare Books room, the amulet collection is not on regular display.